A split Flagler County Commission voted 3-2 to approve a $1.23 million option to buy the 60,000 square foot Florida Memorial Hospital building in Bunnell, as is, pending the administration’s “due diligence” over the next 90 days. Under the agreement, the price is not negotiable should the county decide to buy the property at the end of the due diligence period. But it may walk away from the option at any point, without a financial penalty.
Commissioners Nate McLaughlin, Barbara Revels and George Hanns voted for it. Frank Meeker and Charlie Ericksen voted against. The division on the board reflected the divisiveness of the issue, which sprang to public view only late last month, after it had been broadly discussed internally, even with commissioners.
The decision on the old hospital followed a 90-minute meeting that started at 11 this morning (after the unrelated commission meeting that started at 9 a.m.), spilled into an hour spent at the hospital property, when commissioners and others walked through the building in guided, flashlight tours, then concluded with a formal meeting at the Emergency Operations Center, where it had begun. The tour, much of it in darkened hallways, rooms, crannies and lobbies, was reflective of the county’s approach on the property acquisition as it has been conducted so far: much of it in the dark, with cherry-picked details briefly flash-lit.
But supportive commissioners strained to appear less sold than cautious with their approval of the option agreement.
County Commissioner Barbara Revels said the old courthouse has “potentially better ready-to-go space” at the moment as an option for a county acquisition, but is too “constrictive to future use,” while the hospital property has plenty of acreage for expansions and other usages. “I saw no cracks anywhere in any wall,” Revels, a builder, said. “The roof appears to be in excellent shape,” even as it will need to have a new coating. “The bones of the building are quite good, quite strong, and it gives us a great deal of future options to house there as we grow in the use of that facility.”
“You can’t see the cracks in me either, but they’re there,” former County Commissioner Hutch King said, addressing the commission in the final public-speaking period. “You look at the MRIs, and they’re really there.” He said that more than the analysis presented, the perception surrounding the proposed acquisition will override its value. “This smacks of political payoff, whether it is or it is not,” he said.
But several others stressed the value of the building, is vastness, its ideal location in the center of Bunnell, and the due diligence ahead that will give the administration and the commission options to drop the deal.
The board will review the results of the due diligence, which entail analyses of the building’s structure, the potential cost of potential environmental clean-up and an independent appraisal by the county. The appraisal was not part of the original agreement. But it was what County Commissioner Barbara Revels requested be part of the agreement as she made the motion to go ahead with the option. County Administrator has authority to spend up to $70,000 for the due diligence.
“That’s not unreasonable or unheard of in this market,” Coffey said of the $1.23 million. In 2002, the building had been estimated at $2 million. The acquisition, should it go through, would cost the county at least $5 million, when reconstruction costs are included. That cost does not include that of a new roof, which is needed, nor the cost of asbestos clean-up, should that be needed: documents indficate that there is still some asbestos in the building, though much has been removed.
The county is looking at buying the building as part of its options—now up to four—to move the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s operations center from its current, cramped and out-of-the-way location at the edge of Bunnell (on Justice Lane) to downtown Bunnell. The move would make it easier to use the property left behind on Justice Lane as part of a planned expansion of the county jail. The county commission, in an earlier meeting Monday, voted unanimously to approve a $1 million design contract for that jail expansion.
County Administrator Craig Coffey began the late-morning meeting with a presentation defending the potential acquisition as one of several options, and said it remains just that—an option—as the county studies its possibilities. Two other options include moving the sheriff’s office into the annex of the old Flagler County Courthouse, an option that appeared to be gaining favor last year but that did not have a solid majority of commissioners behind it. The other option is to build a new operations center in place of the old, disused county jail—not on Justice Lane, but on State Road 100, below the Bunnell water tower.
Commissioner Frank Meeker submitted a fourth option, which Commissioner Charlie Ericksen supported: To add 25,000 square feet to the existing, 26,500 square-foot Emergency Operations Center (behind the Government Services Building) and move the sheriff’s operations there, consolidating them with the 911 dispatch center, which is located at EOC. Ericksen said the EOC was underused, and could have some of its uses moved to the main government building, which does have ample space, particularly as Bunnell’s city offices move out of there and into the old courthouse.
But Coffey was quick to question the appeal of the proposition. “You’ve got a fire department here, obviously it was built for a specific purpose, for disasters,” adding that there was not enough space in it to accommodate the sheriff’s office. He said he’d analyzed the idea previously, and would, he said, gesturing toward Meeker and Ericksen, “walk you guys through them.”
“We’ve kicked this can around and around and around. Frankly, if this doesn’t pan out, I’m not going to move beyond the annex,” Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin said.
Ericksen, the lone dissenter in the vote Monday, said he preferred to ask the sheriff to “tighten his belt” for a couple of years and “live with what we have now.”
The meetings brought out quite a few interested parties among the 35-odd people attending it at one point or another: Gail Wadsworth, the clerk of court, and her second-in-command, Tom Bexley; City Council members Bill McGuire and Jason DeLorenzo, who is also the local builders association’s political affairs director; Rebecca deLorenzo, the president of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, along with Garry Lubi of the chamber; Undersherrif Rick Staly; Flagler County Health Department Director Patrick Johnson; and former County Commissioners Alan Peterson and Hutch King. Around lunchtime Supervisor of Elections Kimberle Weeks tok a seat in the audience and joined the visit at the property. She is concerned about some of the capital budgeting that may potentially divert $500,000 her office needs to replace election equipment, and wants to ensure that commissioners are aware of the mandate she’s under.
Some 10 people spoke, in the morning seven in favor of (or at least not opposing) the acquisition, three opposed, including Undersheriff Rick Staly, who did not endorse the hospital option so much as thank the commission for continuing to explore options that all aim to get the sheriff into larger location.
“This will allow you to section off portions of the building,” Coffey had said of the hospital property. The sheriff has asked for a minimum of 22,000 square feet, or roughly a third of the roofed space on the property. That’s what would be renovated first, leaving the rest of the square footage either to be renovated later or to be knocked down (or partially knocked down) to make room for more parking. There are currently 166 parking spaces on the property. The county could just as well add on to the building.
A few more people spoke in the afternoon, immediately before the vote, including Peterson, the former commissioner, who echoed other critics when he said the county was approaching the acquisition backward, and urged commissioners to seek two appraisals, not one, and criticized paying a price three and a half time the appraised value of the property. He also noted that there is current vacant space in the county that could be better used.
The commission took its 3-2 vote at 2:45 p.m.